The DOJ’s Plan to Empty (and Refill?) US Prisons

The Department of Justice recently announced a decision to release 6,000 people from federal prison. As part of that announcement, agency officials noted that one-third of the people released are immigrants who will be quickly deported. There is a clear and troubling pattern where policy reforms in the criminal legal system do not extend to immigrants in the criminal justice or immigration enforcement systems. The glaring question is: Why not?

Whether because of the human or monetary costs, lack of effectiveness, or the clear bias that runs rampant, there is a re-examination occurring of the war on drugs and the mass incarceration system. Reforms in these domains, however, are not being considered in the immigration enforcement system; in fact, the trend is going in the opposite direction. An act that, for citizens, may no longer warrant a criminal charge, much less incarceration, for immigrants often means a double punishment of a harsh prison sentence and possible deportation. Already immigrants receive harsher sentences inside of the criminal legal system than citizens.

As sentencing reform victories are making mandatory minimums increasingly obsolete, politicians are still proposing the very same approach to enforce immigration law. If these policies have proven to be ineffective and inhumane in drug policy, what makes anyone think they are well suited for immigration policy?

The war on drugs has wreaked havoc both domestically and abroad. Over 40,000 immigrants are deported for drug offenses each year – resulting in more than one-quarter of a million people forcibly removed in the past seven years alone. This double standard, along with hateful rhetoric that targets “felons not families,” inflicts serious harm on countless communities.

One recent example of an effort to reform the immigration system through the lens of the criminal legal systemtook place in California, but was thwarted when Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that the Los Angeles Times called a “new approach [that] would treat potential citizens the same way full citizens are treated when it comes to minor drug infractions.” Imagine that – vetoing legislation that sought to bring Californians one crucial step closer to treating all people equal under the law.

Meanwhile, thousands of families across the US continue to face the brunt of our draconian drug laws. In her groundbreaking report, “US: Drug Deportations Tearing Families Apart,” Human Rights Watch Researcher Grace Meng notes that “even as many US states are legalizing and decriminalizing some drugs, or reducing sentences for drug offenses, federal immigration policy too often imposes exile for the same offenses. Americans believe the punishment should fit the crime, but that is not what is happening to immigrants convicted of what are often relatively minor drug offenses.”

Attorney General Loretta Lynch embodied that double standard in one breath when she was asked about the planned release of people from prison:

The Sentencing Commission made some changes in the way sentences would be calculated. A number of cases are being referred to judges and it will be the courts who decide if and when someone is released. Once that happens, if that happens, we expect those individuals will hopefully be able to be re-integrated into society. A vast number of them are not going to stay here; a vast number of them are eligible for deportation and will be removed.

For some, a hope for reintegration, while for others no chance whatsoever because our immigration policy is still grounded in mass criminalization. It’s time for that to change.

As we near the anniversary of President Obama’s immigration executive action, relief remains elusive at the federal level while millions remain ensnared in the mass deportation system.The administration continues to punish immigrants rather than implement much needed relief and reform.

To ensure that emerging reforms in criminal justice that reduce prison populations are not just replaced by immigration policies that fill them, it’s time for the double standard to end.